When one thinks of foreign films from Eastern Europe, one might instinctively think of slow and dreary dramas about poverty and suffering, not exactly the type of thing you would want to go see on a Friday night at the multiplex with popcorn in your lap. That's why Kontroll, the first film from Hungary's Nimród Antal, is such a pleasant surprise. It's a comedy-action-thriller set in an underground subway system where a group of bumbling ticket inspectors or "kontroll agents" go through the cars making sure that everyone is paying their fare. Things get ugly on the job when a killer starts pushing people in front of trains, but there's even a bit of romance in there for the film's lead (Sándor Csányi) when he meets a girl in a teddy bear suit.
Antal was in New York, where his movie has been included in Lincoln Center's prestigious "New Directors/New Visions" series, something he was still quite surprised and overwhelmed about, but he took the time to talk to ComingSoon.net in one of his first American interviews. Remember the name, because you're sure to be seeing more of this talented young director in the future.
CS!: What originally motivated you to make this film? Nimrod Antal: It was the guys, you know, and all the verbal and physical atrocities they go through. I think it had a lot to do with that, first and foremost. I just thought it was interesting that there was this facet of society that is despised, but I also thought that was kind of cool. That was the initial motivation for the film.
CS!: So Budapest actually has these types of ticket inspectors? Antal: It's the real deal. But they're not metro cops. They can't touch you, and they can't arrest you. They can't physically stop you, so the irony and a lot of the problems are born out of that. They're not taken too seriously, but obviously, they have to take their jobs very seriously.
CS!: They don't even have turnstyles? Antal: No, you just walk right in. It's an honor system.
CS!: Did you get a chance to talk to some of these ticket collectors? Antal: Yeah, Sándor and I, we hung out with them for an hour. We put an armband on and did it, like a ride-along for a cop. It was terrifying. People are really mean! It's chicken or the egg, of course…are they that way because the ticket inspectors are jerks?
CS!: Have you ever seen anything that crazy go down on the subways? Antal: Yeah, I think that we have some crazy situations that go down, but I also have to say that the dirt and the soot and even the actual things that happen are a little exaggerated and cartoonish. We wanted to overdo it a little bit for stylistic purposes.
CS!: With that in mind, what is up with that disclaimer at the beginning of the movie? Antal: That was a request on the Metro's part. The gentleman presenting the monologue is the head of the Metro system…the head of the entire public transportation system in Budapest, in fact. Unfortunately, I have to say that it wasn't my idea, but it was a spectacular idea. It takes the film to another level, and it really does complement the film well.
CS!: How were you able to convince them to let you film so freely in the subway? Antal: Persistence. It took nine months and six meetings to convince the head of the Metro to let us shoot, and his unwillingness to let us go there and shoot was understandable. He was concerned that we were going to disrupt commuter traffic or that we were going to portray the ticket inspectors themselves in a bad light, which were valid concerns. It took a while, but we were able to convince him finally.
CS!: Once you convinced them, how did you actually go about filming in that sort of setting? Antal: We filmed from 11 in the evening to 4 in the morning, five hours a day, and we pulled off about 25 shots a day. We had a very detailed storyboard, and we were very very well prepared going into the whole thing, because we were turned down so many times by the Metro. With hindsight now, I have to say that the opportunity just to have proper preproduction--to do storyboards and just to really figure out the whole film in our head before we got there-- I'm happy that I had to go through that on an emotional level, but also on a practical one, just to get ready. We knew that we'd have limited time and budget, so we had to shoot a lot in very little time. Given that we were using all the natural lighting sources--we didn't really have to stop to light necessarily--and given the fact that I was blessed with probably one of the most spectacular crews in the world had a lot to do with the fact that we pulled it off.
CS!: Was it hard finding all of the locations within the subway system with that kind of shooting schedule? Antal: Being familiar with the system, I knew that there was one or two sequences that I wanted to shoot in specific places, for instance the running sequence, I knew that I wanted to shoot in one given place. There were a few sequences we had known beforehand where we wanted to do it. Once we got the location, we went down and they gave us a special train. It was really cute, because they had to turn off the electricity, and they had this little diesel train that takes you around and it can stop at any point within the tunnel itself even. Since there's no electricity, we could come and go. We got off and walked the tracks and found these little places behind the platforms that commuters don't ever see. It took two or three days that we kept going back. We had to wait for their approval to even start that process.
CS!: And they actually let you use the trains? Antal: Yeah. We were supposed to give them a week beforehand what we wanted to do the following week. We tried to accumulate the train sequences into two or three shooting days. That was impossible, of course, but we tried to gather those shots as much as we could, so we'd have a so-called "train day."
CS!: Was it dangerous having actors going onto the tracks? Antal: That was really dangerous, not even for the electricity, because of course, the electricity was turned off. You have all kinds of obstacles and wires and cables and soot and filth. Those things don't come across unfortunately.
CS!: It's pretty amazing that the movie uses all natural lighting. Where did you find your director of photography, Gyula Pados? Antal: I had known him since film school. He and I had done my diploma film together and a few commercials in Hungary. He's an outstanding cinematographer, very strong. I think he's doing something ludicrous like Basic Instinct 2 now.
CS!: What about your leading man, Sándor Csányi? Was he already established as an actor in Hungary already? Antal:Sándor wasn't that established. He was a love interest in a big film at that point, but he had never played a leading role. He was literally cast three days before shooting, because I lost the actor who I had initially wanted to use. Sándor showed up and with hindsight, I can't even imagine anyone but him playing the part.
CS!: Actually, you have a pretty big cast. Where did you find the rest of them? Antal: One of them is the equivalent of Robert DeNiro over there; the guy with the fire pigmentation on his face is the biggest Hungarian actor there is. The girl at the beginning is an enormous actress in Hungary. Others were just friends of mine. Some were people I found on the street. It was just a mix. I would have never had the opportunity here [in America] to work with the caliber of people I had an opportunity to work with in Hungary. The crew that I was blessed with were all top-notch guys. A guy called Nimrod calling someone up and saying, "Hey, let me make a film with you!" would never have happened here. In Hungary though, given that so few movies are made, they're more than happy. They usually just jump at it regardless of what the story is, because so few films are made.
CS!: Does Hungary really have some sort of film scene there? What's it like? Antal: It's really really changing. My generation is very fortunate in that the generation that preceded us--the guys in their 40's and 50's--they had a really tough time because Communism came to an end, the old school government financing had ceased to exist. The new one hadn't been in place yet. There are still very few producers in Hungary; you can count them on one hand. I think that a lot of really talented directors in their 40's and 50's just didn't have the opportunities that my generation has. We're very lucky. Now, there is a class that came after me, and they had a very strong teacher, who basically, guaranteed them each a feature film. So within three or four years, this class had put out a bunch of films. Some names to look out for are a guy called György Pálfi. who did a film called "Hukkle", an outstanding film! There's another guy called Benedek Fliegauf, who just did a film called "Dealer". It's a very difficult film and nothing like "Kontroll," but I really think it's a great film!
CS!: How did you get the money to make your film? Is it hard getting financing there? Antal: $200,000 was from a private investor--a loan basically--and $600,000 is from the government. There's a process to that. You have to fill out forms and have a production house behind you. There's a few things that you have to have in place to get that money. When we approached them, we had a script, a very detailed 584-frame storyboard--like a graphic novel, and we also had a two-minute fake trailer that I had shot before even writing a script.
CS!: The mix of genres in your film is interesting. Antal: Yeah, I've been attacked a lot because of that. For a lot of people, it feels uneven. They're expecting one thing and then it becomes something else and for some people, it's not a pleasant thing. I love that! I love the fact that you don't know where you're going. I love the fact that you're on ride that is going to make you laugh and going to make you cry. It's kind of like life in general. You never have just scary moments. You have a humorous moment that precedes a scary moment or a heartfelt moment that precedes the action sequence. I like doing that, and I hope to interject that in everything I do. I don't know if I could pull that off though.
CS!: With that in mind, how do you market something like this for audiences? Antal: Our intentions and my view was that this movie was intended for Hungarian audiences. I was never supposed to be here. When we were coming out with the film, we figured that the hardcover Hungarian cinephiles are going to come regardless. If you put up a poster with a piece of dogsh*t on it, the film fans are going to come see it, because it's a movie. So who else did we want to win over? We thought it would be cool to have this humorous action-thriller and the trailer was cut that way, because that was going to bring in the multiplex audiences over there.
CS!: And how did the movie do over there? Antal: It was the biggest film of 2003. The average Hungarian film has about 50 to 60,000 viewers, and we had that number the opening weekend! It was a big deal. We beat the Colin Farrell film "S.W.A.T."…but "Finding Nemo" kicked our ass!
CS!: Can you talk a bit about some of your favorite movies and your influences? Antal: Hitchcock, Chaplin, Buster Keaton. I love Scorsese, Coppola, Tarantino, Spike Jones and Spike Lee. In high school, I had three films that were a big influence. Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange", Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" and Scorsese's "Taxi Driver". Those are three films that I kept on watching over and over. And I think Martin Scorsese was robbed! And I think that we as a filmmaking society should really show our appreciation to people like him. It pisses me off! Not that I don't love Clint Eastwood.
CS!: Do a lot of those movies get released over there or do you have to find them on DVD? Antal: You definitely don't have the DVD opportunities that you have here, because the market here is much bigger with many more films and titles. I prefer American DVDs over Hungarian DVDs, because even here, if you buy the basic $20 DVD, you still have some sort of paper slipped in with the sequence or chapters. In Hungary, they don't even do that. They just put it in a plastic box and sell it to you.
CS!: Without getting into spoilers, you seem to leave a lot open for interpretation in this movie. Was that intentional? Antal: There were some happy accidents, of course. Lots of things were intended. Other things that I wanted fell through, but as far as those kinds of questions--is it his imagination? Is he the killer? Is it his alter-ego?--I would just prefer to leave open. In my mind, I gave a very clear answer what was going on, but I realize that if there is room to interpret it other ways, maybe that's the beauty of it. Maybe what I'm trying to say with it doesn't necessarily relate to you, but maybe you're able to find something in it that makes it your own.
CS!: What's next for you? Are you going to try to use this as a reel to get some Hollywood movies? Antal: I'm waiting for an answer right now. I'd like to something similar to "Kontroll" but maybe an English language film. I would love to make an American movie. The funny thing is that they say they want to do new things, but I think when you come up with something new, they're usually reluctant to go all in.
CS!: It seems to be the latest trend for directors who do foreign language films to remake them in English. Has anyone asked you to do that yet with "Kontroll"? Antal: No! But it's such a weird occupation, you know, and you couldn't quite do it with Metro cops. It wouldn't be the same.
Kontroll opens in New York on Friday and in Los Angeles on April 22. If it does well enough, it should open in other cities over the summer.